Is this anything?

David Letterman used to do this bit called “Is This Anything.” Paul Schaffer would lead off a fanfare, the curtain would open and close on some weird act, and then Dave and Paul would decide whether it was anything. Mostly, they decided it wasn’t.

That’s a question I keep asking about the stuff I’m writing on Dial M these days. Is this anything? On the one hand, yes, obviously, I’m writing a lot of stuff and people are even reading it. But what I’m really asking is, what kind of intellectual work does blog writing represent? What value does it have in the academic humanities? Is academic blogging just a hobby? A place to vent personal opinion? A way of roughing out ideas before working them into serious projects? Or is it a serious project in itself — that is, an autonomous mode of intellectual work? Is so, what kind? Can you call something “serious” that uses animated gifs? Again: is this anything?

is this anything

Dial M in a gif

The other day I gave myself a promotion. I had to update my CV and decided that my work on Dial M — around 300,000 words and the better part of ten years — deserved more than a single line buried in the ignominious “service publications” category. So I made a new category for it, “Digital Humanities,” and moved it up next to my peer-reviewed academic publications. This felt a little bogus, though, as if I were a banana republic generalissimo pinning medals to his own chest.

Does blogging count as “digital humanities”? I usually associate that term with large-scale, “big science” data-processing work done by institutes like Indiana University’s CHMTL, which has been doing this stuff since before the internet existed. But of course the realm of the digital includes the internet and therefore also the creative work that makes use of its myriad resources and capacities. Which would include blogging — a form of writing that doesn’t just happen to be housed on the internet, the way academic articles can be housed either in bound paper volumes or on JSTOR, but which is integral to the medium and impossible to understand apart from it.

The question “is this anything?” often comes down to the question of whether blogging deserves to be recognized in formal evaluations of academic faculty. The brutally cynical answer is maybe, but who cares, nothing is going to change. As I’ve said before, the academic humanities is caught between its demand for newness and the mechanisms by which newness is judged. Everyone wants, or says they want, cutting-edge and paradigm-smashing notions. But if we want to decide whether something is appropriately or usefully new (or for that matter to decide what “appropriately or usefully new” means), we need to ask experts in the field, which means that in order to get a hearing in academia, things can only be new in the sanctioned, permissible way. New ideas or approaches must thread their way through the preferences and prejudices of what is, after all, just a bunch of people, albeit people with Ph.Ds. We like to imagine that a brilliant idea wins out on the basis of its own merits, but what matters just as much, maybe more, is the authority that bestows legitimacy on the idea.* To the degree that online publishing circumvents the hierarchy of academic authority, that system will never value it.

Although I have bemoaned the death of the old blogosphere, there’s no question that more and more scholars are taking more and more of their work online. Discussion of what we’re to make of that is still mostly online, too. It seems to me that as younger scholars go about their working lives on the internet, they are becoming increasingly aware that they’re putting in work here, and that it matters. If my Twitter feed is to be believed, though, we have reached a point where the form our work is taking has outrun the ability of our institutions to keep up with it.

But maybe things aren’t really all that bad. There’s an argument to be made that academia is beginning to find ways to accommodate and recognize online writing. Maybe we’re already seeing new institutional arrangements emerge and are only waiting for them to lock fully into place.

I was going to attend the panel on online publishing in musicology at the recently-concluded annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, but as always seems to happen, something came up and I missed it. I’m guessing that someone pointed out that there are now a number of blogs that offer a new, hybrid, best-of-both-worlds model of online publishing — the Oxford University Press blog, Norton’s The Avid Listener, the AMS’s Musicology Now. These are all multi-author blogs with editors to whom scholars can pitch ideas; some of them (like The Avid Listener) even pay. The argument for these platforms is that you can have the loose-limbed informality, space for imagination, and individuality that blogging offers, while at the same time work within a quality-controlled environment that offers something like a recognizable set of safeguards against triviality and self-indulgence. These are places where a scholar’s online publishing can be more easily recognized as real academic work. You can show these publications to a tenure review committee without embarrassment, and even if it still ends up in the “service publications” category, in due time we will see a shift in tenure priorities as blogging platforms are professionalized and online writing becomes more legible as legit academic work.

But what has happened is that with these new edited multiauthor blogs, blogging has taken on the shape of academia’s “religious culture” (see notes * and #, below). Whatever the merits of these platforms and the things they’ve published (which are substantial), they are online magazines, not blogs, because (1) they have guidelines for contributors and editors to enforce them — in other words, they lack the freedom of a personal blog — and (2) they hire writers and for the most part don’t have permanent contributors who can develop a voice and a context for their interests and ideas and writings.

My wife (who among other things does freelance work as an arts and humanities grant consultant) likes to say that one cardinal rule of grant writing is, don’t try to fit your project to the grant guidelines — instead, find the grant that best fits the unique shape of your project. If you trim your sails to the winds of granting requirements, the proposal will almost certainly be weaker. I think something of the sort applies to writing as well: it’s hard to imagine that H. P. Lovecraft could have developed his distinctive writing voice trying to flog his stories to The Sewanee Review. Or Saul Bellow having to push his work at Weird Tales.

If I didn’t already have a blog, I could write for these new multiauthor platforms and probably get a lot out of it, but I wouldn’t be doing the sort of writing that I’ve ended up doing here. The Avid Listener’s submission guidelines call for pieces of between 500 and 1500 words on topics “intended to address the needs of two different audiences at once: undergraduate students in music appreciation and music history courses, and the general public, who may not have been previously exposed to technically fluent music criticism.” Almost nothing I have written recently for Dial M really answers this description. Musicology Now has more general topical guidelines but tighter word-count limits, and anyway my idea of musicology isn’t necessarily the AMS’s. The OUP blog seems to exist largely to promote OUP publications; it’s basically a marketing tool. This thing I’m writing right now — I couldn’t publish it on any of these platforms. I’m not sure I could publish it anywhere that would be recognized as a properly accredited academic venue.

And that’s just fine — these online publications are doing good work in valuable genres of writing. I don’t want other blogs to look like mine! But by the same token I also don’t want my writing to look like everyone else’s, either. That’s why blogging matters most to me: Dial M is the place I’ve developed an individual writing voice and my own peculiar ideas. It might be a small thing, but it’s my thing. It’s that truly free space for individual intellectual development that academia still can’t (and I suspect won’t) recognize. The academy can only recognize it when it becomes just a bit less free.

You might ask, what’s so great about cultivating an individual writing voice? Aren’t you in the wrong business for that? That’s an artistic aim, not a scholarly one. Well, those are interesting questions, but I will have to try answering them another time.

*When Ramsey Dukes says that academia is a religious institution, this is partly what he’s driving at. It would be the task for another day to lay out his theory of the “four cultures” — art, religion, science, and magic — which expands the “two cultures” argument of C. P. Snow. But very quickly, Dukes argues that religion characteristically deploys reason to make sense of “intuition,” a sort of inner prompting that might come from inspiration, memory, learning, or tradition. So the rational arrangement of things taken as given — whether those things be scripture or the collected works of Jacques Lacan — is the characteristic mode of (respectively) theology and academic writing.#

#So: do you buy this idea? Admittedly, I didn’t do it justice, since I gave myself a paragraph to summarize a set of ideas whose complexity demanded Dukes write a whole book (S.S.O.T.B.M.E.) to explain them. I can hardly be said to have argued the idea in proper academic fashion; I have only gestured vaguely in its direction. However, this happens all the time.

Let’s say you go to an academic conference and hear a paper that applies Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories to music. The presenter breezily says something about how the Real lies outside of language and therefore outside of our experience and then proceeds to build her subsequent argument on this thumbnail sketch of Lacanian theory. The argument itself carries no authority, because it’s hardly even an argument, it’s just a cursory characterization. What carries authority is Lacan’s name.

But oddly, in such a situation you almost never hear anyone take issue with what looks a lot like a naked appeal to authority. If someone got up in the Q&A and asked “how do you know Lacan isn’t full of shit?” you’d probably think it was someone Making A Point, like someone thinking he’s taking a brave stand against the creeping pernicious influence of Lacanianism in the academy or something. Whereas if in my paper I just dropped a reference to a cultural theorist you had never heard of, or to someone who (like Dukes) writes books in a genre that doesn’t get reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement (which probably amounts to the same thing), then it’s likely that people are going to ask me to defend the theoretical warrants of my argument.

In Lacan’s case, the idea is already taken on board, because c’mon, it’s Lacan. You studied him in graduate school. He’s important. By the time our imaginary presenter has written her paper on the Lacanian implications of Superfly, there have already been so many other Lacanian papers, monographs, edited anthologies, graduate seminars (etc.) that we have already accepted the Lacanian Real as a received idea we can deploy in making our own arguments. And while the logic and cogency of our application of Lacanian theory might be contested, the theory itself is simply posited a priori. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what Dukes is talking about when he says that academia is a fundamentally religious institution, in the sense of religion = reason + intuition.



About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Is this anything?

  1. dellantonio says:

    Phil – thanks for the shout out to TAL. And yes, I totally agree that curated/peer-reviewed sites like TAL (and the other two you mention, and of course there are others) don’t have the freedom of individual voice that solo (or in the case of Dial M, duo) blogs afford their authors — but I don’t think it’s incompatible for authors to publish in venues that allow them to develop different registers and thus different audiences for their insights (in other words, your invaluable approach on Dial M doesn’t let you off the hook for considering a foray into TAL-format, which we of course would treasure).

    Interestingly, the digital publication session at AMS didn’t go to blogs until I brazenly brought up TAL in the Q&A – the focus was more on the question of what “publishing” means in the digital age, how presses are grappling with open access digital ventures, and if/how the AMS publication subvention should expand to digital projects. All useful topics, and all mostly still concerned with scholars-talking-to-other-scholars-and-building-CVs mode. What I’ve always loved about Dial M is that you aren’t in that mode at all — you write stuff that matters to you and while there are some posts that hit me between the eyes more than others, the energy/urgency of “this stuff matters” is always evident, and that’s something that is so frequently declawed through the ostensibly “objective” process of peer review or curating.

    At TAL we try keeping at least some of the “so what” foregrounded, but it’s true that we ask writers to adapt their style to an “ideal readership” (unsurprisingly W W Norton’s sales constituencies, since they’re the ones providing the $ for compensating authors and a bit for our editorial/curatorial work, though we’re certainly not in it for a living wage). I think that even without the specific Norton mandate we’d be interested in keeping a certain register, which in a short presentation about TAL at AMS I characterized as being driven by linguistic accessibility concerns — this leads us to provide editorial guidance toward a goal that I described as analogous to ensemble singing, where individual voices adapt somewhat to “blend” without losing unique timbre… But of course Felicia and I have the power to dictate the nature of the common “blended sound” towards which we want individual voices to aim.

    I do like your characterization of TAL as a magazine — that would resonate with our concerns for linguistic accessibility in a register that is not “insider-scholarly”, and leave open the potential for our magazine to be one that is thoughtful and provocative rather than simplistic/sensationalistic (a danger in print press as well as online blogging, as we all know). Apropos of magazine-ish musicological work, I’ve been very impressed with the work of some scholars connected to the Op-Ed Project — for example Will Cheng, who has posted several scholarly-infused opinion pieces about music and other matters (op-eds here on his personal site: … I’m wondering where you see that kind of blogging in the broader “sphere” of the useful work musicologists “can get away with” (you may know that Will quoted that phrase from your fantastic piece from a few weeks ago in his own presentation in the accessibility panel — if you two aren’t in regular touch yet, I think you’d really like where his work is taking him.)

    Thanks for doing this thing which is a thing – not everything, but a crucial thing.

  2. grahamlarkin says:

    Regarding your CV Phil, I think you’re right to give Dial M more prominence, but I would propose forgoing the DH moniker and filing it under Occasional Writings or some such title–just as I recently advised a student to make a gazetteer. Sure these categories are not trending, nor are they likely to trend. But they are perfectly legitimate Things. So why not call a thing what it is with as much specificity as possible, rather than shoehorning it into the fashionable DH box?

    I don’t mean to suggest that DH is not also a Thing. To my mind it’s a perilously amorphous category, due to all the loose talk and over-hyped results, but it’s certainly something. My kind of DH would make innovative and highly customized tools for understanding–things like interactive databases, maps and visualizations. And it would involve the integration of diverse media objects–e.g. texts, images, sound files and videos in a way that transcends logocentric scholarship.

    Informal (and mostly text-based) online communications in the form of blog posts or tweets are perfectly legitimate forms of publication, and they deserve to be recognized as such by the academy. But–notwithstanding the insertion of GIFs, images and videos–blog posts and tweets are not what I would call DH. Or not yet, at any rate, though it’d be cool if we were able to really push these forms in that direction.

    I worry that if we start calling every digital form of communication DH then it becomes a vapid, corny accolade like “public intellectual.”

    N’est-ce pas?

  3. philphord says:

    Hey Andrew —

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I strongly agree with what you say in the first paragraph. I think there’s a lot to be said about thinking of yourself as a writer first and foremost and to push yourself by putting your writing out there in different venues. If (as I believe) scholars have varying and individual talents for different forms of written expression, it would be wonderful if there were more venues for people to find and develop those talents. I mentioned H. P. Lovecraft for this reason: classy intellectuals like Edmund Wilson might have hated the pulps, but it turns out that Weird Tales offered the right venue for developing Lovecraft’s peculiar genius. As scholars, we tend to assume that whereas literary publications fall along a wide spectrum of different styles and genres, there’s only one or two sanctioned academic styles and that the important distinctions between publications are topical rather than stylistic. What is so important about TAL and similar publications is that they are beginning to offer a more diverse ecosystem of writing. So indeed, people stand to grow a lot by trying to write stuff for TAL, Musicology Now, etc. As usual, I’m greedy for yet more opportunities and venues for new styles. There is not (yet!) a musicological Weird Tales.

    I had not seen Will Chang’s blog; thanks for linking to it. That dude is a seriously good writer. I am gratified that he quoted my “musicology is anything you can get away with” line. To judge from his varied publications and the fact that he can switch up his styles, he seems to be trying to get away with something, and I heartily approve. More of this, please, fellow scholars!

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